Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Historical Superlative: The Biggest, the Worst, the Ugliest Since the Beginnings of the English Language

As just one example of the overused and misused historical superlative—be on the look out for more as you continue your reading of the news—Matt Krantz writes in USA TODAY, “Wall Street's ongoing struggles reached historic proportions Tuesday when another sell-off sent stocks to their worst first five trading days of a year ever” (“Stocks off to worst start ever”).

Effectively, what Krantz is saying is this: things are so bad, we have never seen them this bad before. Or, perhaps more to the author’s implicit point, things are really bad because we have not seen them before. Analyzing this simple rhetorical construction, we find that there is little substance to the argument. Newness in itself is not intrinsically evil nor is it problematic. What gives the rhetorician his power here is his ability to take something which on the surface is displeasing to the general public—for example, a few bad trading days—and distort it into an historical landmark, something that citizens of Eurasia 250 years from now will be able note on America’s economy: [In some Chinese-Russian dialect, a student answers his American History professor] “The turning point of the American Republic was when stocks traded badly for five days in a row in the year 2008.” Now Americans are worried because a simple statement gives its readers a feeling of impending doom, an apocalypse, a world that one has never seen before. “We are heading into uncharted territory,” the author could write.

All this is misleading, however. It’s all about context. Context is the all important word that many pseudo-historians of the popular news sources forget during the composition of their Revelations-esque article. In 1982, the S&P dropped dramatically in the first several months, but by the end of the year, stocks were up and since then have increased ten-fold. We had a somewhat similar start this year. Stocks dropped dramatically and it could appear that we are heading for some major losses, but we could still end up having the greatest year on record.

It is quite easy to look at sorrow-inducing events in the present and compare them to similar sorrow-inducing events in the past and comment on how much worse we should feel now than we did then. What takes time, effort, and some intelligence, however, and what also separates a large portion of liberals from a large portion of conservatives, is understanding an event in a broad spectrum of time. It’s not about how bad we feel but the objective circumstances that had resulted in a specific outcome. We should study these, not our feelings. We should write about these, not how bad one thing looks in comparison to another.

I hope that the Rover staff can hold to these standards along with Notre Dame’s own Observer since the unbridled use of the historical superlative is evidence of the rhetorician at work behind the news. Be on the look out and beware, and I wish you the best of luck in your quest for the truth.

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